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Our experience with lay summaries: an interview with the American Journal of Kidney Diseases

November 4, 2021 | 5 min read

By Alina Foo, Christopher Tancock


"The lay summary device ... is a versatile tool that helps disseminate new research..."


Following an earlier article in Authors' Update on the topic of lay summaries and recent discussions of similar devices in Societies' Update, in the below article we hear from Alina Foo, Associate Managing Editor of the American Journal of Kidney Diseasesopens in new tab/window on the journal's experience of introducing and employing lay summaries to help authors, readers, patients and care-givers.

Alina was interviewed by Christopher Tancock.

  1. Could you give us a brief intro to the journal and its readers? The American Journal of Kidney Diseases (AJKD), the official journal of the National Kidney Foundationopens in new tab/window, is recognized worldwide as a leading source of information devoted to clinical nephrology practice and clinical research. With an impact factor of 8.860, AJKD now ranks third among all journals that publish original research in nephrology.

  2. When and why did AJKD start using lay summaries? We introduced lay summaries in late 2017. We wanted to make journal articles more reader-friendly and more accessible to a wider audience. At the time, the journal leadership was in the midst of transitioning from one Editor-in-Chief to another, and there were several ideas that were being considered by the new team. This was one of the new ideas that was selected for implementation. We looked at an array of journals to see the range of options (style, description, length, format etc.) before deciding what approach we thought would work best for our journal.

  3. How are they produced? Who reviews them? Because a good number of papers get rejected, we do not ask authors to provide a lay summary (LS) at initial submission, and instead request at revision stage. We provide authors with instructions on how to produce a LS in the revision request letter. When the editors assess the revised manuscript, they review the LS as well. And then when manuscripts are ready to accept, they quite frequently edit them directly. When editing the LS as part of the final evaluation of the manuscript, the editor considers both scientific accuracy and readability. Also, as they are part of the published content, lay summaries undergo technical editing and copyediting.

  4. Do you find that authors cope with producing lay summaries or are there any problems? Yes, we do sometimes see summaries which are too technical. We have a word count limit for the LS, and authors sometimes struggle to explain the findings of their papers in a concise manner. They might include too much or too little information, or fail to answer a prompt in the instructions. In these cases, the edited LS are sent back to the author(s) along with other edited parts of the manuscript for final approval.

  5. I understand your lay summaries are now incorporated into the published journal article. How did this decision come about? At some point, we realized that these plain-language summaries were only found on our social media pages. We wanted a way to make sure that readers who may not follow our social media also see these plain-language summaries, so we decided to incorporate them into the published article.

  6. How do lay summaries help the journal and its authors/readers? What impact do they have and what feedback do you get from authors? For the authors, we wanted to increase the dissemination of their research and we needed an easy-to-read explainer so that we can promote their articles on our blog and Facebook page. We don’t think they find this a burdensome task. Time is valuable, and we know that our readers, like everyone, do not have a lot of time on their hands to read everything. For the readers, we wanted to provide a short and simple paragraph that summarizes the research article.

    It really depends on the article whether there is good interest on social media. Good articles usually have more interest because of the research findings, not because of the LS.

    Overall, we consider the lay summary device a success because it is a versatile tool that helps disseminate new research. We continue to find new ways of deploying the LS, such as sharing them in our society’s newsletters or on EurekAlert for reporters. For staff, it also cuts down the time needed to prepare a blog or Facebook post to promote the articles.

  7. And how do they benefit the NKF society? NKF has a strong patient network, and we want to make sure patients know research is being done to prevent and treat of kidney disease. Ideally, the plain-language summaries can also help patients understand the latest research coming out in nephrology. We have partnered with NKF to promote AJKD research through Facebook Live and podcasts. The LS are helpful as a starting point for NKF to select articles that work best for their audience.

  8. What (if any) are the next steps for AJKD and lay summaries? We will explore the possibility of recording these plain-language summaries and sharing them in podcast form in the future.

  9. Do you have any advice for other societies/journals thinking about introducing lay summaries? We encourage other journals to provide clear instructions to their authors. Once the plain-language summaries are finalized, include them in the articles and start promoting!